411's Dan Plunkett looks at Henry Cejudo vs. T.J. Dillashaw!

mma / Columns

Henry Cejudo vs. T.J. Dillashaw Promises History

January 14, 2019 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Henry Cejudo TJ Dillashaw UFC Fight Night 143

For the first twenty-three years of the UFC’s existence, there were zero double champions. Only one fighter, B.J. Penn, had even made an attempt at it. The lack of double champions isn’t as much a statement on the talent of the fighters over that time, but rather the result of fewer titles (for much of that time, the UFC had only four or five weight classes) and Zuffa’s general avoidance of pitting champions of different weight classes against one another.

Then on the promotion’s twenty-third anniversary, it happened. Conor McGregor, the men’s featherweight champion, captured the lightweight title from Eddie Alvarez. Last July, it happened again, when Daniel Cormier headed up to heavyweight to take belt from Stipe Miocic. It happened for a third time in December, when Amanda Nunes curbed one of the most dominant runs in MMA history and knocked the women’s featherweight title out of Cris Cyborg’s grasp.

These fights have come at a time when the UFC has fewer bankable pay-per-view stars than in the past, and so they’ve aimed to put the stars they do have in the biggest fights possible.

With an apparent eye toward closing its flyweight division, and lack of more lucrative fights for their lighter-weight champions, the UFC could crown its fourth double champion this week. While all of the UFC’s previous champion vs. champion bouts had the lighter champion moving up in weight challenging the heavier champion, Saturday’s bout reverses that trend. Bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw moves down in weight to challenge flyweight champion Henry Cejudo.

T.J. Dillashaw was not an expected champion. In 2014, he was the second choice to challenge Renan Barao for the bantamweight title, and only received the call because the first choice, Rafael Assuncao, was injured. Barao was a significant favorite. He hadn’t lost in nine years and he’d dominated most of his bouts in the UFC. After he beat Urijah Faber for the second time in February 2014, the UFC began promoting Barao as the world’s best fighter pound-for-pound. Dillashaw ensured the distinction wouldn’t stick to Barao for long.

Shockingly, Dillashaw dominated Barao from bell to bell, knocking him down in the first round and eventually finishing him in the fifth round. He repeated his feat, only doing it a round sooner, a year later with another stoppage victory over Barao for his second successful title defense.

Had one more judge’s opinion been slightly swayed in Dillashaw’s narrow January 2016 loss to Dominick Cruz, we would be talking about him as a dominant long-term champion. Instead, Cruz earned the nod, sending Dillashaw to back to work. Consecutive wins over Assuncao and John Lineker put Dillashaw back in position for the title. It took Dillashaw two rounds to unseat Garbrandt, and then in a rematch nine months later, he took him out a round earlier.

The idea of Dillashaw at flyweight first came about in May 2017. Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt were initially slated to meet for the first time that July, but Garbrandt fell off the card due to an injury. The UFC then went in the direction of Dillashaw dropping to flyweight to challenge champion Demetrious Johnson, who had just tied the record for the most successful UFC title defenses. Johnson wasn’t keen on the fight, wanting more money and fearing Dillashaw would miss weight in his first attempt at cutting down to flyweight.

The fight was temporarily shelved, only to be brought up once again after Dillashaw reclaimed the bantamweight title and Johnson broke the defense record. For whatever reason, whether the UFC seriously explored the option this time or not, it didn’t happen.

Then the game-changed occurred. Johnson went into his twelfth title defense against Henry Cejudo as a significant favorite. After all, one of those successful defenses had come against Cejudo in a one-round thrashing. But Cejudo had matured in the two years since that fight. In one of the closest championship bouts in recent memory, Cejudo won the flyweight title and ended Johnson’s reign. Immediately, Cejudo expressed interest in fighting Dillashaw.

Cejudo now has the chance in his first title defense to add a bigger name to his resume than his predecessor added over eleven successful title defenses. Dillashaw, of course, has the chance to go down in history as the fourth UFC fighter to hold two belts simultaneously.

The background narrative of the fight is ever-present. Based on the UFC trading Demetrious Johnson, releasing several flyweights, and the promotion’s past alleged threats to Johnson, it appears they are getting rid of the flyweight division. That means if Dillashaw beats Cejudo, he likely won’t have the opportunity to defend his championship. For Cejudo, it means that if he wants to continue as champion, he’ll have to beat Dillashaw twice (presumably, beating Dillashaw at flyweight would put him in line for an immediate bantamweight title shot).

No matter the outcome, Saturday’s event is one of the rare shows in which history is all but assured. Beyond the fact that it will be the first live event of the UFC’s agreement with ESPN, it could mark the end for UFC’s flyweight championship, and it could see T.J. Dillashaw join an exclusive club of double champions.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.